Tag Archive: Roman

Dec 24 2016

Book review: Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason

roman_chesterI recently realised that I live in a city with rather remarkable Roman roots. Having read Mary Beard’s book, SPQR, about the Roman’s in Rome, I turn now to Roman Chester: Fortress at the Edge of the World by David J.P. Mason.

The book starts with a chapter on the origins of the study of the Roman origins of Chester, and some background on Roman activities in Britain. The study of the Roman history of Chester begin back in the 18th century, with the hypocaust under the old Feathers Inn on Bridge Street a feature promoted by its owner. The Spud-u-like on the site now similarly boasts of its Roman remains. The original Roman east gate was still standing in the 18th century, and there exist several drawings of it from that period. The Victorians were keen excavators of the Roman archaeology, and formed the Chester Archaeological Society in 1849, and built the Grosvenor Museum in 1883.

A recurring theme of the book is the rather wilful destruction of substantial remains in the 1960s to build a couple of shopping centres. The Roman remains on the current Forum Shopping Centre site were destroyed after the rather fine Old Market Hall had been knocked down.

The core Roman activity in Chester was the fortress, established in 75AD under the reign of Vespasian. The fort is somewhat larger than other similar forts in England and the author suggests this was because it was, at one time, intended as the provincial governors base. Vespasian died shortly after the building of the Chester fortress started and the work paused. At the time of its Roman occupation Chester had a very fine harbour, the local sandstone was suitable for building, a brickworks was setup at Holt, further up the River Dee, and there was metal mining in North Wales and there was salt sourced from Northwich – all very important resource at the time.

Standing on the river Dee meant Chester could serve as a base for the further conquest of Britain and Ireland – although these plans did not come to fruition.  The evidence for this is some unusual buildings in the centre of the old fortress, and the rather more impressive nature of the original walls than the average Roman fort, and the discovery of rather classier than usual lead piping.

The book continues with a detailed examination of the various parts of the Roman fortress and the buildings it contained: the public baths, granaries and barracks. This is followed by a discussion of the surrounding canabae legionis, including the amphitheatre, the supporting Roman settlement and the more detached vicus. This includes the settlement at Heronbridge which was excavated relatively recently.

The third part of the book travels through time, looking at the periods c90-c120 in which the fortress was rebuilt, c120-c210 when the legion stationed at Chester was sent elsewhere to fight leaving the fortress to decline significantly. c210-c260 when the original impressive buildings at the heart of the fortress, not initially completed, were finally built. c260-c350 when the fortress fell and rose again. To finish in the period c350-c650 when Britain became detached from Rome, and fell into decline. The Roman fortress was robbed to provide building stone for the medieval walls and other structures including the cathedral.

Roman remains are visible throughout modern Chester. The north and east parts of the modern city walls follow the line of the walls of the Roman fortress. Some pillars are on display in front of the library, the hypocaust found under the Grosvenor shopping centre can now be found in the Roman Gardens, the amphitheatre is half exposed, parts of the walls particularly near Northgate and parallel to Frodsham street are contain Roman elements, the mysterious “quay wall” can be found down by the racecourse.

The book finishes with some comments on the general character of the investigations of Roman remains in Chester, and suggestions for further investigations and how to better exploit Chester’s Roman history. On the whole Chester has done moderately well in its treatment of the past, study started relatively early but much material has not been published. These days archaeology is mandated for new developments in the city but these tend to be rapid, keyhole operations with little coherent design.

Roman Chester is a rather a dry read, it is written much I would expect an article in a specialist archaeology journal to be written. The book could have done with a full double page map of modern, central Chester with the archaeological sites marked on it. As it was I was flicking between text descriptions and Google Maps to work out where everything was. Perhaps a project for the Christmas holiday!

If you are a resident of Chester then the book is absolutely fascinating.

Update

I’ve started making a map of Roman Chester on Google Maps.

Oct 23 2014

Book review: Pompeii by Mary Beard

For a change I have been reading about Roman history, in the form of Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard.

Mary Beard is a Cambridge classicist. I think it helps having seen her on TV, jabbing her figure at a piece of Roman graffiti, explaining what it meant and why it was important with obvious enthusiasm. For me it gave the book a personality.

I imagine I am not unusual in gaining my knowledge of Roman culture via some poorly remembered caricature presented in pre-16 history classes at school and films including the Life of Brian, Gladiator and Up Pompeii.

Pompeii is an ancient Italian town which was covered in a 4-6 metre blanket of ash by an eruption of nearby Vesuvius in 79 AD. Beneath the ash the town was relatively undamaged. It was rediscovered in 1599 but excavations only started in the mid 18th century. These revealed a very well-preserved town including much structure, artwork and the remains of the residents. The bodies of the fallen left voids in the ash which were reconstructed by filling them with plaster.

The book starts with a salutatory reminder that Pompeii wasn’t a town frozen in normal times but one in extremis as it succumbed to a volcanic eruption. We can’t assume that the groups of bodies found or the placement of artefacts represent how they might have been found in normal daily life.

There are chapters on the history of the city, the streets, homes, painting, occupations, administration, various bodily pleasures (food, wine, sex and bathing), entertainment (theatre and gladiators) and temples.

I’ve tended to think of the Roman’s as a homogeneous blob who occupied a chunk of time and space. But this isn’t the case, the pre-Roman history of the town features writing in the Oscan language. The Greek writer Strabo, working in the first century BC wrote about a sequence of inhabitants: Oscans, Etruscans, Pelasgians and then Samnites – who also spoke Oscan.

Much of what we know of Pompeii seems to stem from the graffiti found all about the remains. It would be nice to learn a bit more about this evidence since it seems important, and clearly something different is going on from what we find in modern homes and cities. If I look around homes I know today then none feature graffiti, granted there is much writing on paper but not on the walls.

From the depths of my memory I recall the naming of various rooms in the Roman bath house but it turns out these names may not have been in common usage amongst the Romans. Furthermore, the regimented progression from hottest to coldest bath may also be somewhat fanciful. Something I also didn’t appreciate was that the meanings of some words in ancient Latin are not known, or are uncertain. It’s obvious in retrospect that this might be the case but caveats on such things are rarely heard.

Beard emphasises that there has been a degree of “over-assumption” in the characterisation of the various buildings in Pompeii. For instance on some reckonings there are huge numbers of bars and brothels. So for instance, anything with a counter and some storage jars gets labelled a bar. Anything with phallic imagery gets labelled a brothel, the Pompeiian’s were very fond of phallic imagery. A more conservative treatment brings these numbers down enormously.

I am still mystified by the garum, the fermented fish sauce apparently loved by many, it features moderately in the book since the house of a local manufacturer is one of the better preserved ones, and one which features very explicit links to his trade. It sounds absolutely repulsive.

The degree of preservation in Pompeii is impressive, the scene that struck me most vividly was in The House of Painters at Work. In this case the modern label for the house describes exactly what was going on, other houses are labelled with the names of dignitaries present when a house was uncovered, or after key objects found in the house. It is not known what the inhabitants called the houses, or even the streets. Deliveries seemed to go by proximity to prominent buildings.

I enjoyed Pompeii, the style is readable and it goes to some trouble to explain the uncertainty and subtlety in interpreting ancient remains.

Once again I regret buying a non-fiction book in ebook form, the book has many illustrations including a set of colour plates and I still find it clumsy looking at them in more detail or flicking backwards and forwards in an ereader.